Tony Abbott has made his address to the National Press Club and it was a fairly predictable affair. Despite a Galaxy poll that has showed the Coalition trailing Labor 43-57 on a two-party preferred basis, with Abbott’s approval rating slumping to 27 per cent, Abbott asserted that he is the best person to lead the Liberal party and that only the Australian people, who has elected him, had the right to depose him.
Wrong on both counts.
In terms of the “‘best person to lead”, Liberal MPs prefer Malcolm Turnbull. In public polling on preferred prime minister, he concedes a massive lead to opposition leader Bill Shorten. So, whatever Abbott may think, his own party and the voting public clearly don’t believe he’s the best person to be Prime Minister.
On the second count, he was elected as opposition leader by the party room. The party room has the right, which it may well exercise, to get rid of him
But there’s a more fundamental problem and relates to Abbott’s view of himself and of the world. The title of his Magnum Opus, Battlelines, says it all.
Life, and particularly politics, is a battle, it’s them or us. Only one side can win. There is no compromise. These are the kinds of attitudes that flow from Abbott’s mindset about his place in the world: you are constantly at war and you must fight the good fight.
Unfortunately, if you adopt this particular attitude, every now and then, you come out on the losing side. The problem is, when Abbott losers, he only punches harder.
But this uncompromising, pugilistic, antagonistic and aggressive attitude towards politics is out of keeping with the needs of a modern society.
Australia is made up of a number of extremely diverse but often overlapping constituencies. These constituencies form around various political ideas: climate change, balancing the budget, gay marriage, euthanasia, mining taxes, support (or otherwise) for public education, funding of universities etc. A skilful politician, and Abbott is not a skilful politician, will balance the interests of these constituencies to their political advantage.
A skilful politician realises that the electorate is not a simple dichotomy between Liberal and Labor but a far more diverse, subtle and complex mix of attitudes and aspirations.
Climate change is a good example of Abbott’s winner–takes–all attitude. He appears to be completely out of touch with an increasing proportion of the Australian population that supports strong action on climate. Yet he is ideologically and temperamentally incapable of finding common ground with this group of people.
The same applies with the government’s attitude towards the funding of public universities. There is a significant proportion of the population who believe that university education should be free or at least extremely affordable. Th Liberal Government is ideologically opposed to this.
Christopher Pyne’s efforts to force the legislation through the Senate shows that the government is not prepared to compromise on this issue. And neither is the Senate. But Abbott would see this as a “test of character” for the government.
But it’s not. it ideological pig-headedness and it simply provides an opportunity for independent senators to demonstrate they can thwart the government on extremely unpopular legislation. And the public loves it.
This is where an understanding of the diverse constituencies of the Australian electorate become so important.
The minor parties and independent senators, who have the immense advantage of not being shackled by a need to govern the country, are able to champion the causes of various constituencies. Jacqui Lambie did this extremely effectively over the pay cuts for Defence Force personnel.
The minor parties’ and independent senators’ opposition to unpopular legislation and their support of diverse constituencies brings them immense political and popular support. And they have all worked out that this enhances their chances of re-election.
A skilful politician would short-circuit the Senate’s ability to champion these constituencies by developing policies that are inclusive of the interests of the wide variety of constituencies. This may mean negotiating with people who hold quite different views.
This is at the centre of effective government. It is not about being the captain, drawing the battle lines or telling colleagues “you will have to blast me out”. It’s about governing in a way that takes serious consideration of the aspirations of as many Australians as possible.